Landlords responsible for safety of tenants and guests, appellate court says

Published: Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 - 11:00 pm
Last Modified: Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 - 11:45 pm

Absentee landlords are legally responsible for the safety of tenants and their guests on rental property, a state appellate court has ruled.

The owners of a Sacramento home had a duty to protect 4-year-old Allen Soucy, who drowned in 2009 in the backyard swimming pool, a three-justice panel of the 3rd District Court of Appeal declared Tuesday in a 13-page published opinion.

It reverses Sacramento Superior Court Judge David I. Brown, who granted the homeowners’ motion for summary judgment, holding they had no liability.

The appellate panel also ruled that Brown was wrong when he found there were no triable issues of fact.

The justices said issues of fact that should be decided by a jury are:

• Whether the homeowners had a duty to install a fence around the pool or a self-closing or self-latching mechanism on the only door in the house that provided direct access to the pool.

• If there was a breach of duty, whether it was a substantial factor in Allen’s death.

The panel sent the case back to Brown, directing him to vacate his order granting the homeowners’ motion for summary judgment and enter an order denying the motion.

The opinion was authored by Associate Justice Ronald B. Robie, with the concurrences of Acting Presiding Justice Cole Blease and Associate Justice M. Kathleen Butz.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of Allen’s mother, Melina Johnson, who was not present at the time of the accident.

Johnson’s attorney, Hal Seibert, said Wednesday of the opinion, “Naturally, I applaud it. It should be for a jury to determine whether the homeowners took the appropriate steps to make the property safe.”

Defense attorney James R. Donahue said Wednesday, “I don’t think there was anything the property owners could have done to prevent this accident. It was a tragic situation where the father and grandparent simply lost track of the child.”

Donahue said there had been no decision as to whether he will seek review at the California Supreme Court.

The incident occurred in June 2009 during a gathering of friends at a home in the 7900 block of Center Parkway in south Sacramento. The rented property was owned by Benorad Prasad and Brig Prasad.

Some guests and their families swam, including 4-year-old Allen and his grandmother, who brought him to the party. When the swimmers got out of the pool, they went into the house through a sliding glass kitchen door and a security gate. Allen’s grandmother briefly lost track of him and a search ensued. Allen’s father found the little boy at the bottom of the pool. He was kept alive until July 17, 2009, when he died at UC Davis Medical Center.

Brown decided “there was no reason to expect children to be playing in the pool.”

“This conclusion ignored the facts of this case and the realities of pools and children,” Robie wrote in the district court’s opinion. “A reasonable expectation was that children, especially young children, approach pools, regardless of their capacity to swim, thus exposing themselves to the danger of drowning.

“Thus, the foreseeability of harm to a young child such as Allen weighed in favor of imposing a duty of care on the homeowners,” Robie reasoned.

Had there been a fence around the pool or a self-closing or self-latching device on the kitchen door, “Allen may not have been able to access the pool at all,” he concluded.

Call The Bee’s Denny Walsh, (916) 321-1189.

Read more articles by Denny Walsh

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